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The Tunisian Task Force

Linwood W. Billings
Lieutenant Colonel
Commander, L Company
1st Infantry Division,U.S. Army

Section 5

The Tunisian Task Force

Note: This paper was presented to the Army War College and is published with the permission of David D. Evans.

    On the morning of 15 November 1942, thirty-three C-47 transports dropped three hundred men of the 2nd Battalion, 509th Parachute Regiment on Youks-les-Bains airfield in central Tunisia. (1) This force was under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Edson D. Raff, and was the nucleus around which the Tunisian Task Force would evolve. (2) During the following weeks, this small group was to grow to fifteen hundred men, and before this force was broken up, it would reach a strength of four thousand. (8) Its aggressive patrolling, small but damaging attacks, and ability to defend vital areas were to deny central Tunisia to the Axis during the next few months, insuring that the southern flank of the British First Army was protected. Considering the strength of the force and the extensive area which it covered, the results achieved by its operations were spectacular and almost beyond belief. General Eisenhower has referred to the story of these operations as "a minor epic in itself". (4)

 

The Plan Unfolds

    The minimum objective of the Anglo-American invasion of North Africa on 8 November 1942, was the seizure of the major ports between Casablanca and Algiers. This action was to deny their use to the Axis, either as submarine bases or areas of operation against the British desert forces to the east. Once the Allies were assured their landings were successful, they began to turn their attention east to Tunisia, as originally planned. The main objective of destroying Axis Forces presently engaged with the British Eighth Army, twelve hundred miles to the east, still remained to be accomplished. (5)

    The Axis reaction to the North African invasion was swift and violent. The Germans commenced launching air attacks on Algiers the night of 8 November . (6) By late afternoon of 9 November, they had begun bringing fighters, dive bombers and air-landed troops into E1 Aouina airfield near Tunis. (7) Axis air and ground forces located in areas across the Sicilian narrows were less than 100 miles from Tunis and Bizerte, while the closest Allied Forces were at Algiers, 560 miles away. (8) (See Map A) Thus the race for Tunisia began.

    Allied forces began pushing east as rapidly as possible. Light British forces conducted landings at Bourgie on 11 November, and Bone was occupied on 12 November. Both of these landings were unopposed. (9) (See Map A) By the close of 12 November, British forces had reached a point within 130 miles of Tunis. The next phase of the operation was to involve a penetration of Tunisia at two different points by British forces, and the sending of a third force of Americans to the Tunisian-Algerian border on the southern flank. The third force was to be Colonel Raff's battalion. (10)

Parachute Battalion

    The 2nd Battalion, 509th Parachute Regiment had made a combat jump at Oran as part of the invading force. (11) Due to navigation difficulties, the battalion was scattered over a wide area, and many of its personnel and much of its equipment was lost. (12) The battalion was alerted by II Corps on 10 November, the day Oran fell, to be prepared to make another combat jump in the next few days. By 14 November, three hundred paratroopers had been moved to Algiers, prepared to embark on a new operation. It was anticipated that this force would be used in conjunction with General Anderson's British First Army in their drive into Tunisia. (13)

    On 13 November, Colonel Raff was advised by British First Army that his battalion was to jump on Tebessa, Algeria with the mission of denying the airfield located there to the Axis. By chance, Colonel Raff found out, through his own resourcefulness, that a much larger airfield known as Youks-les-Bains was located ten miles north of Tebessa. This field had been used as a base for French bombers against Tripoli in 1939-1940. Upon being provided with this information, First Army agreed that both the field at Tebessa and the one at Youks-les-Bains must be denied the enemy. (See Map B) There were shortages of equipment, maps, weather information, and intelligence, both of the enemy and of the area of expected operations, which all had to be overcome by improvisation in order that the plan might be carried out.(14)

    As the planes carrying the 509th approached Youks-les-Bains airfield, soldiers were seen in the trenches around the field. There were several anxious moments as the paratroopers started their jump, not knowing whether the troops below were French or German. Upon reaching the ground, the Americans found a poorly equipped, but friendly and helpful, unit of the French Army in possession of the area. Immediately, a group of one hundred fifty men were started toward Tebessa to accomplish the remainder of the mission. (15)

Entrance to Tunisia

    Very little exact information was available to Colonel Raff's force, at this time, as to the location of the Axis troops approaching the area. (16) However, it was known that the French, reacting to the Axis invasion, were pulling their troops out of Tunis, Sfax, Sousse and Gabes in order to mobilize them behind the hills of Tebessa. (See Map A) The French expected the enemy to head north from Tripolitania along the Gafsa-Gabes road at any time. (17) The only force that was between the expected enemy and Tebessa was thirty men of the 3rd Regiment, Chasseur D'Afrique, which was equipped with ancient armored cars and motorcycles. (18) The idea of striking south and occupying Gafsa before Axis forces could arrive appealed to Colonel Raff. Finally, after much persuasion, Allied Force Headquarters in Algiers granted permission for a reconnaissance patrol to go to Gafsa, eighty miles to the south. Forty men crossed the Algerian-Tunisian border on 17 November and moved to Gafsa in borrowed French civilian buses. Upon their arrival, contact was established with the French Chasseur D'Afrique Regiment and defenses were prepared around the airfield. (18)

    Small German forces moved into Sousse, Sfax, and Gabes on 17-18 November. Italian troops from Tripoli reached Gabes on 20 November, while other Italian forces from Tunis had made their way to Sfax by 21 November. (20) Enemy forces quickly occupied areas to protect the flank of their troops in Tunis and to maintain a line of communication with Rommel to the south. All of this information concerning the enemy's moves was reported promptly to Colonel Raff by the Chasseurs D'Afrique. This small French force had developed a highly effective and sensitive intelligence system, which relied upon frequent telephone reports by its agents in Tunisia's coastal cities. This system continued to operate effectively until sufficient Axis forces had arrived in the area to disrupt communications. It was of the greatest assistance in aiding the Raff force to properly deploy to meet the enemy's initial rush into central Tunisia. (21)

The Early Days

    Allied Headquarters began to take steps to provide support to the Tunisian Task Force with the movement of Axis forces toward the Gafsa region. The first new force to arrive was a squadron of P-38's which was stationed at Youks-les-Bains. (22) Eventually, considerable air strength was moved into central Tunisia, and it contributed greatly to the success of the Task Force. Headquarters in Algiers had granted authority to increase the American detachment in Gafsa to one hundred men. The total Allied forces available for defense of the city on 20 November was less than one hundred fifty men, but these troops lacked both artillery and anti-tank weapons. Consequently, reinforcements were requested from Allied Force Headquarters. (23)

    Early on the morning of 21 November, information was received by the French that an enemy tank-infantry force was heading west from Kairouan towards Sbeitla. (24) (See Map B) This information, coupled with the fact that enemy units had been sighted on the Gafsa-Gabes road, decided the French and Colonel Raff that a withdrawal from Gafsa was necessary. After blowing up the gasoline storage depot at the airfield, both forces moved north before daylight to Tebessa. (25) What had begun as a day of despair ended as one of jubilation, for on that morning, Company I and the 3rd Battalion Anti-tank Platoon, 26th Infantry arrived at Youks-les-Bains by C-47 from Algiers. In addition, Company B, 701st Tank Destroyer Battalion joined the Task Force that afternoon, having made the long trip overland from Oran. (26) The request for reinforcements having been answered, the Tunisian Task Force was ready to resume its operations. Plans were prepared with the French that afternoon for a combined attack to retake Gafsa the next morning. The plan provided for the use of the recently arrived reinforcements and included an air attack. That evening, the augmented force started its return to Gafsa after dark. At 0700 the morning of 22 November, the attack commenced with the P-38's strafing the enemy positions. The tank destroyers opened fire with their 75's and the infantry followed the half tracks into the city. Gafsa was quickly retaken, but most of the small German parachute group which had held it managed to escape to the south. (27)

    The next twenty-four hours was to see the Tunisian Task Force become involved in operations which would lead to its employment on a 100 mile front. It started with a call from French Headquarters in Tebessa for assistance in the Sbeitla area. Tanks supported by motorized infantry had been reported moving west toward Ferriana. (28) Colonel Raff did not desire to split his force unless absolutely necessary. Before he could reach a decision in the matter, a French motorcycle rider arrived and reported that one of their armored cars was in contact with an enemy tank force at E1 Guettar, south of Gafsa. Raff collected a tank destroyer-infantry force and hastened twelve miles south to E1 Guettar. In the engagement that followed, five enemy tanks were destroyed and four more abandoned. The enemy was forced to retreat in the dark toward Gabes. (29) That night, Colonel Raff ordered the tank destroyer company, reinforced with parachutists, north to answer the French call for help. The expedition reached Ferriana that night without gaining contact with the enemy. By noon on 23 November, it had driven to Sbietla and made contact with an enemy tank-infantry force. A short, fierce battle followed in which twelve enemy tanks were destroyed, three trucks captured, and nearly one hundred prisoners taken. Most of the prisoners were Italians, as the Germans had withdrawn when the battle began to go against them. Following these two quick victories, the Tunisian Task Force was concentrated at Ferriana on 25 November. (30) From this location, it functioned as a mobile striking force, capable of reaching all likely avenues of approach within the sector in four or five hours.

The Infantry Takes Over

    Reinforcements continued to arrive for the Tunisian Task Force. By 1 December, all of the 3rd Battalion, 26th Infantry except one company had reached central Tunisia. (31) This unit, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel John W. Bowen, had replaced all but eighty-five men of the parachute battalion. (32) The paratroopers lacked the means to sustain them in combat for long periods of time, and they had already been in this area over two weeks without the benefit of vehicles, kitchens or other heavy equipment. The planes that brought in the infantry evacuated the paratroopers to the rear. (33) All of the 3rd battalion, 26th Infantry was eventually brought into central Tunisia by air, except for its vehicles, which made the long overland trip from Oran. (34)

    Fiad Pass, directly east of Ferriana, had intrigued the leaders of the Tunisian Task Force for sometime. (See Map B) This was one of the few gateways through the eastern Dorsale mountain range to the coastal plain. Control of this pass would provide protection to the British First Army flank to the north, as well as posing a threat to the Axis lines of communication with Rommel to the south. (35) The estimated strength of the enemy guarding the pass at this time was between two hundred fifty and six hundred men. (36)

    On 1 December, Colonel Raff started his force moving toward Fiad and launched an attack against the pass early the next morning. After two days of spasmodic fighting, the pass was captured just before dark on 3 December, and one hundred twenty of the enemy surrendered. (37) The plan of attack provided for surprise by striking the enemy from the rear, but due to inexperience, the attacking force was discovered during their approach march. Consequently, the attack was poorly executed. If additional infantry and artillery support had not been provided by the French, it is doubtful if the attack could have achieved success. (38) The Axis reacted quickly to this small-scale offensive. A concentrated effort was made by the enemy air force to destroy the Americans during the next few days. The air attacks came on an average of three to four times daily and varied in strength from one to ten planes. (39) Sixteen vehicles were destroyed in the next two days, a loss that the Tunisian Task Force could ill afford. (40)

    The defense of the pass was turned over to the French, and the Task Force went into reserve at Sidi-Bou-Zid on 5 December. (See Map B) Here, the Task Force spread out in the cactus surrounding the village. Slit trenches were dug for protection from the German aircraft which continued their attacks for the next seven days. However, by making maximum use of cover and concealment, the force suffered small losses. By 12 December, all of the Task Force had withdrawn from Sidi-Bou-Zid and concentrated in the Ferriana area. Once again, the Tunisian Task Force was ready to resume its "fire brigade" role as a mobile reserve. (41)

The Little War

    During the next two months, a type of warfare was carried on in central Tunisia in which Americans excel, when properly trained. It consisted of combat patrols, raids, reconnaissance missions, mine laying and the disruption of the enemy's communications. These operations all required initiative, imagination, daring and skill. Night motor patrols frequently traveled twenty-five to forty miles from friendly lines to accomplish their missions. In order to travel the required distances, the patrols depended on speed and firepower rather than stealth. (42)

    The retaking of Gafsa by a small force was to permit patrols toward Gabes and Maknassy. (See Map B) By mid December, this force had increased to company size, and permanent outposts were established on the Gafsa-Gabes road and at Sened Station. Both of these outposts had their share of harrowing experiences, but, in spite of the situation, there were humorous episodes as well. More than one camel caravan was mistakenly reported to Task Force Headquarters as a column of tanks by over-apprehensive outpost members. Generally however, these outposts did an excel lent job in providing warning to the Task Force of enemy movements. (43)

    As more Axis troops became available in central Tunisia, the intensity of enemy patrol activities increased. This was followed by Axis occupation of any locality in the area that I was not securely held by Allied forces. Thus, on 14 December, Italian troops occupied Maknassy. (44) Two days later, two platoons of Company L, 26th Infantry executed a night raid on the town, taking it completely by surprise. (45) This small force swept into town from the south and east, shot it up, and withdrew without loss to the west after capturing twenty-one prisoners. (46)

    With the increase in enemy activity is the Gafsa-Sened area, the entire 3rd Battalion, 26th Infantry was moved to Gafsa on 15 January 1993. (47) Soon, other units, including medium artillery and heavy anti-aircraft were assembled there to defend the city. (48) On 27 January, Lieutenant Colonel John W. Bowen assumed command of the Task Force upon relief of Colonel Raff. (49) The Ii Corps began making plans to establish itself is Gafsa, and new and larger units began moving into the area. (50) The Task Force continued operations in the Gafsa area under a host of commanders until the night of 19-15 February, when it was forced to withdraw due to the enemy breakthrough at Sidi-Bou-Zed.

    It was rather ironic that areas which the Task Force had managed to hold for three months were given up by much larger forces in less than three days. The Tunisian Task Force's end came not through defeat in battle, but because its route of communications to the rear were in danger of being cut. All of the component elements were sorted out after the Kasserine affair, and returned to the parent units. (51) Never again during the Tunisian campaign was such a conglomeration of units as had grown up in the Tunisian Task Force permitted to exist.

Strategy

    Allied interest in central Tunisia in early November 1942 centered about the provision of flank protection for the British First Army and the use of airfields at Thelepte and Youks-les-Bains. (52) There is same doubt as to whether the Allied Command at the outset grasped the importance of central Tunisia as a major area of operations. Prompt action by suitable forces in the first days of the campaign could have achieved great results. An armored combat command or a motorized infantry regiment might have accomplished feats at that time which, two months later, were impossible far divisions. The coastal cities of Sfax and Gabes could have been occupied without firing a shot up until 16 November 1942. Such action would have denied the Axis their line of communication to Rommel in the south.

    There is also the question of whether the early phases of the Tunisian Campaign were conducted as vigorously as possible. Field Marshall Lord Alanbrooke, Chief of the British Imperial General Staff during this period, is of the opinion that Eisenhower did not comprehend the urgency of occupying Tunisia before the Axis could build up large farces there. (53) Unfortunately, General Eisenhower did not move from Gibraltar to Algiers until 23 November, and it was not until this time that he personally was able to speed up the movement of Allied troops to the battle area. (54)

    On the other hand, it appears that the Axis leaders had a deep appreciation of the need far controlling key terrain in this region. Field Marshall Kesselring, in his book, has indicated the significance he placed an the establishment of a defensive line along Hone-Souk-Ahras-Tebessa-Ferriana-Gafsa-Kebili as his ultimate objective. (55) (See Map A) All of the Axis plans envisioned holding dominating terrain features in the Gafsa-Sbeitla area. The only thing that prevented the Axis from accomplishing this objective is the first days of the campaign was the lack of troops.

Summary

    The Tunisian Task Force was not created as the result of a carefully worked out plan. Allied Force Headquarters concept of the use of the 2nd Battalion, 509th Parachute Regiment did not go beyond the seizure and defense of the airfields at Youks-les-Bains and Tebessa. It was recognized that an airborne force without motor transportation, artillery or anti-tank weapons would be unable to carry on extensive operations over a large area. The further exploits of the Task Force that followed developed largely through the circumstances in which this small force found itself on reaching central Tunisia. With the enemy rushing into this area, it was only natural for the poorly equipped French forces to rally around the first Allied forces to reach the region. Thus, it was that this force had responsibilities thrust upon it far greater than one of its size would have ordinarily. The fact that this small unit was able to meet these responsibilities, with its meager resources, was largely due to the imagination, courage and determination of its leader, Colonel Raff.

    Upon arrival in Tebessa, Colonel Raff was quick to see the strategic advantage of the Allies controlling central Tunisia. Although his badgering of Allied Force Headquarters for reinforcements and permission to extend the area of operations at first fell on deaf ears, these requests were later granted. As the force grew in size, it pushed out into enemy-held territory and remained a thorn in the enemy's side during its entire existence.

    Logistical support for this group in the early days was almost nonexistent. The Task Force's life was sustained only by a masterpiece of improvisation in the fields of supply, medical care and evacuation, and maintenance. If it hadn't been for air supply, British rations and French civilian transportation, there is considerable doubt as to whether the Task Force could have survived.

    In spite of the many obstacles that confronted it, the Tunisian Task Force ably accomplished it assigned missions. Before its existence came to an end, it had developed an esprit de corps which will be hard for any unit to equal. This episode in American military history will long serve as an example of what a small, well-led force can accomplish, even in the face of adversity.

Footnotes

1. George F. Howe, United States Army in World War II, The Mediterranean Theater of Operations, Northwest Africa: Seizing the Initiative in the West, p.279.

2. Lieutenant Colonel Edson D. Raff was promoted to Colonel on 27 November 1942 by General Eisenhower as a result of his successes in Tunisia. Harry C. Butcher, Captain USNR, My Three Years with Eisenhower, p.  205.

3. Edson D. Raff, Colonel U.S. Army, We Jumped to Fight, p. 190.

4. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Crusade in Europe, p. 125.

5. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Crusade in Europe, p. 114.

6. George F. Howe, United States Army in World War II, The Mediterranean Theater of Operations, Northwest Africa: Seizing the Initiative in the West, p. 248.

7. J.F.C. Fuller, Major General, The Second World War, p. 243.

8. United States Military Academy, A Military History of World War II With Atlas, Volume II, Operation in the Mediterranean and Pacific Theaters,p.48.

9. Winston S. Churchill, The Hinge of Fate, pp.625-626.

10. George F. Howe, United States Army in World War II, The Mediterranean Theater of Operations, Northwest Africa:Seizing the Initiative in the West, p. 279.

11. The 2nd Battalion, 503rd Parachute Infantry was redesignated as the 2nd Battalion, 509th Parachute Regiment by the War Department, just prior to the North Africa invasion. News of the change did not reach participating units until later in the campaign. Consequently, much of the historical data refers to the parachute unit by its old designation. Edson D. Raff, Colonel U.S. Army, We Jumped to Fight, p. 207.

12. George F. Howe, United States Army in World War II, The Mediterranean Theater of Operations, Northwest Africa: Seizing the Initiative in the West, pp.212-213.

13. Edson D. Raff, We Jumped to Fight,pp. 47-48.

14. Edson D. Raff, We Jumped to Fight,pp.53-54.

15. Edson D. Raff, We Jumped to Fight,pp.61-65.

16. Although Colonel Raff's command was officially known as the Tunisian Task Force, it was more often referred to as the "Raff Force" by the troops in that area of North Africa. United States Military Academy, A Military History of World War II With Atlas, Volume II, Operation in the Mediterranean and Pacific Theaters, p. 49.

17. Edson D. Raff, We Jumped to Fight, p. 68.

18. 3rd Regiment Chasseur D'Afrique is a descendent of one of the five French light cavalry regiments originally recruited for service in Algeria. At this time, it was an armored cavalry unit. William Benton, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Volume 5, p. 313.

19. Edson D. Raff, We Jumped to Fight, p. 81.

20. George F. Howe, United States Army in World War II, The Mediterranean Theater of Operations, Northwest Africa: Seizing the Initiative in the West, p. 289.

21. Edson D. Raff, We Jumped to Fight, p. 82.

22. George F. Howe, United States Army in World War II, The Mediterranean Theater of Operations, Northwest Africa: Seizing the Initiative in the West, p. 299.

23. Edson D. Raff, We Jumped to Fight, p. 92.

24. Edson D. Raff, We Jumped to Fight, p. 95.

25. George F. Howe, United States Army in World War II, The Mediterranean Theater of Operations, Northwest Africa: Seizing the Initiative in the West, p. 289.

26. H.R. Knickerbocker and others, Danger Forward, p. 82.

27. Edson D. Raff, We Jumped to Fight, p. 102.

28. H.R. Knickerbocker, et al., Danger Forward, p. 84.

29. Edson D. Raff, We Jumped to Fight, p. 108.

30. Edson D. Raff, We Jumped to Fight, p. 113.

31. Journal for the 3rd Battalion, 26th Infantry, pp. 1-2.

32. H.R. Knickerbocker and others, Danger Forward, p. 82.

33. Edson D. Raff, We Jumped to Fight, p. 129.

34. Journal for the 3rd Battalion, 26th Infantry, p. 2.

35. H.R. Knickerbocker, et al., Danger Forward, p. 85.

36. Edson D. Raff, We Jumped to Fight, p. 126.

37. Journal for the 3rd Battalion, 26th Infantry, p. 2.

38. H.R. Knickerbocker, et al., Danger Forward, p. 85.

39. Journal for the 3rd Battalion, 26th Infantry, p. 2.

40. Edson D. Raff, We Jumped to Fight, p. 153.

41. Journal for the 3rd Battalion, 26th Infantry, p. 2.

42. H.R. Knickerbocker, et al., Danger Forward, p. 86.

43. Edson D. Raff, We Jumped to Fight, p. 158.

44. Journal for the 3rd Battalion, 26th Infantry, p. 3.

45. H.R. Knickerbocker, et al., Danger Forward, p. 86.

46. Journal for the 3rd Battalion, 26th Infantry, p. 3.

47. Journal for the 3rd Battalion, 26th Infantry, p. 6.

48. Edson D. Raff, We Jumped to Fight, p. 191

49. Journal for the 3rd Battalion, 26th Infantry, p. 7.

50. Edson D. Raff, We Jumped to Fight, p. 192.

51. Journal for the 3rd Battalion, 26th Infantry, p. 11.

52. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Crusade is Europe, pp. 124-125.

53. Arthur Bryant, The Turn of the Tide, p. 430.

54. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Crusade in Europe, pp. 118-119.

55. Albert Kesselring, General Field Marshal, Kesselring, A Soldier's Record, p. 172.

 

Bibliography

1. Benton, William, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Volume 5(Chicago, IL, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc.,1956).

2. Bryant, Arthur, The Turn of the Tide (Garden City, New York, Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1957).

3. Butcher, Harry C., Captain USNR, My Three Years with Eisenhower (New York, N.Y., Simon & Schuster? 1946).

4. Churchill, Winston S., The Hinge of Fate (Boston, MA,Houghton Mifflin Company, 1950).

5. Eisenhower, Dwight D., Crusade in Europe (Garden City,New York, Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1948).

6. Fuller, J.F.C., Major General, The Second World War (New York, N.Y., Duel, Sloan & Pearce, 1949).

7. Howe, George F., United States Army in World War II, The Mediterranean Theater of Operations, Northwest Africa: Seizing the Initiative in the West (Washington, D.C.,Office of the Chief of Military History, Department of the Army, 1957).

8. Journal for the 3rd Battalion, 26th Infantry (1 November 1942 - 2 June 1945).

9. Kesselring, Albert, General Field Marshall, Kesselring, A Soldier's Record (New York, N.Y., William Morrow & Company, 1954).

10. Knickerbocker, H.R. and others, Danger Forward (Washington, D.C., Society of the First Division, 1949).

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12. United States Military Academy, A Military History of World War II With Atlas, Volume II, Operation in the Mediterranean and Pacific Theaters (West Point, N.Y., U.S. Military Academy, 1953.